Dysfunctional teams

I can’t get away from this idea that football is a goldfish bowl for demonstrating the best – and worst – in management practice.

I can’t get away from this idea that football is a goldfish bowl for demonstrating the best – and worst – in management practice.

I know it’s painful but I keep going back to England’s abject performance in the World Cup. Even if you are one of those who think top footballers are a bunch of overpaid, self-obsessed spoilt brats, I want you to put that aside for a moment. Did you notice the body language on the pitch? They knew they were playing badly but there was zero support for each other. Not once did I see a player put his arm around another or give him a pat on the back; if a long pass was miss-hit, the intended recipient didn’t acknowledge his mate’s good intention with a thumbs up or a little hand clap with the arms raised to ensure everyone could see his appreciation, he just put his head down.

During our 4-1 humiliation by Germany, when they raced through our defence yet again, I noticed that one of our mid-fielders only half-heartedly ran back to help. Whether half-fit or not, I found it stunning for someone playing/fighting for their country. But like most of those around him, he’d lost heart – and he’d been allowed to lose heart.

Understanding body language is hugely important in business as well as sport, yet it is often ignored.

A couple of years ago, as a minority shareholder in a struggling business, I was invited to become chairman. Frankly, I could have done without it but I was keen to protect my investment. At my first board meeting I could see that two directors were sitting there, with their arms tightly folded and looking totally uninterested when another one of them had anything to say. One director wouldn’t join in any discussion at all and another seemed to be underlining his achievements for all of us to see. This was not a good sign. I set up meetings as soon as possible with each of them and out came poisonous comments about their fellow directors. They thought the enemy was within the company rather than outside. When I was younger I would have fiddled around trying to find a solution that would keep everyone happy. Now knowing that is disastrous, I grasped the nettle.

The resulting, smaller board has much more responsibility but with commensurate incentives. The board is now very agile; we can make decisions in the back of a taxi and the execs are massively empowered. They have responded better than I would have hoped for and they – and I – have quadrupled our investment in 18 months.

Technology can be a double-edged sword for CEOs, estranging them from the shop floor of the business. Many execs rush around and are rarely in the office, heavily reliant on laptops, mobiles, emails and texts. They regard meetings as a waste of valuable time and money, so use conference calls instead. This is fine in moderation but there’s no substitute for face-to-face discussions to get a sense of what people are really thinking and feeling. Maybe Capello had a point when he banned his players from using mobile phones during meals.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. England were dysfunctional, just like a company’s management team where there is no team spirit. Perhaps this was because of a divisive boss who enjoyed ‘managing’ that way, or it was because of internal politics between groups who were at war with each other and no strong leadership to bang their heads together – most people I know in football would bet on the latter as the cause of the England performance.

Leadership as businessmen know it is rare on the pitch: possibly because players’ physical skills are usually much more developed than their verbal ones. So you often see leadership in the sense of sharing great commitment in playing, like getting stuck into the tackle, running the extra mile or demanding the ball rather than hiding.

Shouting instructions and organising the team is surprisingly rare. Yet the team captain is in many ways the COO: the manager (CEO) and his coaching team have agreed the strategy and tactics but many players, particularly at a lower level, promptly go out on the pitch and forget them. (I know execs like that.)

So the team captain, ideally, should constantly remind the players what they’re meant to be doing. The shortage of such characters is why Manchester United’s former captain, Roy Keane, is still spoken of with such awe. But how many players are taught or choose to study leadership? There are definitely those with the right qualities for it but it doesn’t seem to be encouraged.

I’ve no doubt that involvement with the England football team can be a nightmare, not least because of our pantomime media making heroes and villains of the same people every few weeks. Nevertheless, you will struggle to find a better example of a failure of leadership than the English in South Africa.